death by uber autos

in uber •  last year

recently a self-driving uber vehicle operating on the streets of tempe, arizona struck & killed a pedestrian.

this is every driver's nightmare, a figure seemingly out of nowhere flashes suddenly in the windshield frame then disappears violently out of view with a sickening thud. it's a vision impossible to forget, a guilt difficult to resolve.

personally i root for every failure of the autonomous car wave that's coming hard & fast to take my job. i prefer a failure without someone being hurt or killed and i empathize with the backup driver who is likely traumatized for life. but the physical & emotional carnage here serves to the extreme that is at stake in the future of rideshare, communities, & society.

who is at fault here? it certainly appears from the dashcam video that the volvo xc90 never eased up from its 40 mph cruise, indicating failure of the vehicle's sensors to detect a woman walking a bicycle across an open road directly in front. this is a fatal flaw and resultingly other companies have halted their self-driving car tests. if 40,000 of these vehicles are to be sprinkled about the country doling out random and instant death, customers are bound to complain.

the backup driver, who appears in the video briefly before impact, is looking down, clearly disengaged & distracted, and peeks up surprised & shocked to see the 4,400 lb suv run down its victim like a bowling ball plucking off a lone 10 pin. the video makes the road appear dark (compared to youtube video of that same road at night where it looks much better lit) but it seems unlikely that a standard driver would not have seen someone walking across the road and stopped. in this tempe incident, the driver appears to be little more than a paid passenger.

the pedestrian too bears some examination. walking a bicycle casually, very casually, out of crosswalk, across a multi-lane road at night, she appears to be just as comfortable and tuned-out as the driver. at the last moment she is surprised then horrified as the vehicle barrels into her without relent. but there is no urgency, no half-hearted trot to get out of traffic, no visible inspiration from the sounds of rolling tires motor-driven or from headlights beaming out of a large shadowy box onto the black asphalt she is boldly claiming . i have seen too many of these pedestrians who slow down as the cars line up at a stop light or crosswalk and break down to a shuffle before reaching the sidewalk or curb. while the law book may say the pedestrian has the right of way, the law of averages says no law is absolute. for the bug against the windshield, traffic law is no help.

two interesting sidelights to the story:

  1. the driver is allegedly a twice-convicted felon, having served 4 years for armed robbery & lying on an application for unemployment benefits. these occurred well before uber's seven-year span for background checks.

  2. the driver has been both identified as rafael and rafaela. clarification?

as more details are gathered & revealed there will be at least two constants no matter what -- that drivers & pedestrians must remain vigilant participants in the traffic they navigate & they cede control at their own peril.

the other constant is that the march towards automated vehicles marches on.

they will be back.

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